A Way Forward For Those Who Are Tired Of Taking Sides
2020 should be an interesting year for all of us. Personally, I hope it will be a better one for the public witness of Christians, especially in the American West.
To help encourage this “better witness,” I worked recently with Tyndale House to release a new, revised and expanded edition of my first book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides (2015). In addition to chapters on politics, sexuality, wealth, religious hypocrisy, and other hotly contested issues of our day, new chapters have been added on the subjects of race and gender. Additionally, group and reflection questions have been added to each chapter.
Perhaps because of the current and divisive political climate, the book has experienced a resurgence of interest in recent months. Concerned individuals, small groups, campus ministries, and entire church communities are, as the subtitle states, looking for a way forward for those who are tired of taking sides.
Whether or not you decide to read the book, I hope that the following excerpt, which is a slightly modified version of the book’s introductory chapter, can provide you with some needed encouragement as you prepare to navigate the coming year.
Grace & Peace,
You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
I write this because I am tired.
Tired of taking sides, that is.
Are you tired of gossip and negative stereotypes? Are you tired of labeling and being labeled? Are you tired of political caricatures and talk-show outrage? Are you tired of opinions being presented as facts? Are you tired of critiques and condemnations that forego listening and relationships? Are you tired of indignant blogs and tweets and Facebook posts that take a stand against everyone but that persuade no one? Are you tired of divisions over silly and secondary things? Are you tired of racism, classism, sexism, generationalism, nationalism, denominationalism, doctrinalism, and all other isms that stem from the ism that feeds them all: elitism? Are you tired of the glass being half empty? Are you tired of the endless quest to find something to be mad about? Are you tired of us against God, us against them, and us against ourselves?
Are you tired of the ways that you, too, have succumbed to the against-ness of it all?
Political cartoonist and New York Times op-ed writer Tim Kreider, who concedes that his job requires him to be “professionally furious,” describes a modern epidemic that he calls “outrage porn”:
“So many letters to the editor and comments on the Internet have this . . . tone of thrilled vindication: these are people who have been vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, and found it. . . . Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy reaction to negative stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again. . . . [It is] outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulse to judge and punish, to get us off on righteous indignation.”
The commitment to feeling 1) right and 2) wronged is a fairly common phenomenon. But is this a fruitful way for Christians in particular to engage in public conversations about the issues of the day? Jesus taught us a different way.
Tim Keller writes, “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”
This is where biblical Christianity is unparalleled in its beauty and distinctiveness. I am not talking about distorted belief systems that pretend to be Christianity, yet are not. I am talking about the true, pure, undefiled, unfiltered, and altogether biblical and beautiful system of belief—the one that leads people to trust God and have hope for humanity, to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to love neighbors who are near and who are in need, and to extend kindness to enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus did not merely speak these words as an edict from on high. He became these words. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. While we were running from him, while we were passively resisting him, while we were actively opposing him, while we were his enemies, Christ—compelled by love—died in our stead.
Do we need any more reason than this to extend kindness to those who don’t see things as we do? Having received such grace, Christians have a compelling reason to be remarkably gracious, inviting, and endearing toward others, including and especially those who disagree with us. Are we known by what we are for instead of what we are against? Are we less concerned about defending our rights—for Jesus laid down his rights—and more concerned about joining Jesus in his mission of loving people, places, and things to life?
When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.
Jesus Outside the Lines of My Christian Tribe
Jesus loves the element of surprise. He loves to meet us in places where we least expect him—in places that contradict our assumptions and sensibilities, in places where we are least likely to be looking for him. One of these places is in the lives of other believers with whom we disagree on important, but less-than-essential beliefs.
I am told that the theologian R. C. Sproul once gave a talk at our church—Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, Tennessee—on how God and people come into relationship with one another. On this particular subject, Dr. Sproul is known to emphasize the sovereign, electing grace of God. Others, like Billy Graham, are known to emphasize human free will. While Dr. Sproul would say we choose God only because God first chose us, Dr. Graham would say that God chose us based on his prior knowledge that we would someday choose him. This is an intramural debate between believers. It is an important issue, but it is not a determining factor in anyone’s eternal destiny.
During the question-and-answer time after Dr. Sproul’s talk, someone asked him if he believed he would see Billy Graham in heaven, to which he replied, “No, I don’t believe I will see Billy Graham in heaven.” Of course, there was a collective gasp. But then he continued, “Billy Graham will be so close to the throne of God, and I will be so far away from the throne of God, that I will be lucky to even get a glimpse of him!”
R.C. Sproul demonstrated that sincere believers can disagree on certain matters, sometimes quite strongly, and still maintain great respect and affection for one another. What’s more, they can find glimpses of Jesus in one another—glimpses that may not be as evident within the confines of their own theological tribes.
The longest recorded prayer we have from Jesus is his famous High Priestly Prayer,5 in which he asks God that his wildly diverse communion of followers would be united as one. It is no coincidence that the apostle Paul begins most of his letters with the two-part salutation “grace to you”—the standard Greek greeting—and “peace to you”—the standard Jewish greeting. It is no coincidence that he insists that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, men and women live together as one through Jesus Christ.6 All three of these pairings represented the deepest forms of relational hostility to the first-century reader. Jews looked down their noses at Greeks, and Greeks despised Jews. Men were dismissive toward women, and women were embittered toward men. Free people saw slaves as subhuman, and slaves resented free people. Paul calls for an end to such divisions because Christians are in many ways a band of opposites who, over time, grow to love one another through the centering, unifying love of Jesus.
But there is more to unity than the cooling down of hostility. Christians from differing perspectives can learn and mature as they listen humbly and carefully to one another. I treasure the fact that some of my closest “pastor friends” are from traditions other than my own. Besides being excellent company, these friends are meaningful and necessary for my own development as a minister and as a follower of Jesus.
What’s more, I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain nonessentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of C. S. Lewis, though some of his theological beliefs are different from mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different from mine. I need the resurrection vision of N. T. Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different from mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong-Chan Rah, and the Confessions of St. Augustine, though their ethnicities are different from mine. I need the justice impulse and communal passion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though his nationality is different from mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love drive of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of G. K. Chesterton, though both are Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of their doctrinal distinctives are different from mine. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliot, the long-suffering spirit of Amy Carmichael, the transparency of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Ann Voskamp, the Kingdom vision of Amy Sherman, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different from mine.
As St. Augustine reputedly said, “In nonessentials, liberty.” To this we might add, “In nonessentials, open-minded receptivity.” We Christians must allow ourselves to be shaped by other believers. The more we move outside the lines of our own traditions and cultures and partisan tribes, the more we will also be moving toward Jesus.
Jesus Outside the Lines of Christianity
Jesus makes the audacious claim that he has the truth and that he is the truth. He declares that anyone who knows and receives the truth is going to be set free. But he goes further than this. In his most famous sermon, Jesus says that any claim or idea—no matter how sincere—that contradicts him or his teaching is false and, if not forsaken, will lead to disastrous consequences:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus draws a line in the sand. Whether or not our hearts and minds resonate with, respond to, and surrender to the message of his life, death, burial, and resurrection will determine eternal outcomes for us. Our movement toward him in faith or away from him in unbelief, our saying to him, “Thy will be done” or “My will be done,” will indicate whether he has graciously drawn us into his Kingdom or justly left us outside of it. We are either part of his family or not part of his family.
In this sense, as far as Jesus is concerned, everyone will ultimately “take a side.”
Yet Jesus gave so much of his time, attention, and love to people who did not side with him. A journey through the Gospels shows that he was especially tender toward people who did not believe in him or follow him.
What does this mean for us today? What does this mean for how we Christians, in particular, should relate to those who do not believe as we do?
This excerpt from an essay written by a chaplain at Harvard addresses these questions:
“The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. . . . I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with . . . atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. . . . My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.”
The Harvard chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman.
He is an atheist.
Is it possible for those who believe and those who do not believe in Jesus to disagree with each other on sensitive subjects and still maintain meaningful and even loving friendships with one another? As an atheist, Chris Stedman believes it is possible. As a follower of Jesus, I believe it is not only possible but that it is an essential part of Christian life.
In theory this sounds reasonable, but in real life it is difficult. As Dostoyevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, love in practice is a dreadful thing compared to the love in dreams. In real life, disagreeing about sensitive subjects can reveal pain, sorrow, and complexity. It is with this truth in mind that Christians must navigate the complex and often paradoxical waters of conviction and love.
Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions?
Jesus tells us the answer is yes. And he shows us the answer is yes.
Are you familiar with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man? Jesus told the man to sell all of his possessions, give to the poor, and then follow him. The man then turned away from Jesus because he had great wealth. There are two incredibly significant details in this account that we may overlook. First, Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Second, the man walked away from Jesus feeling sad. Not judged. Not ticked off. Sad. He walked away in the tension of paradox—enslaved by his affluence, yet sensing that by walking away from Jesus he might be forfeiting an even greater, more life-giving form of wealth.
What matters more to us—that we successfully put others in their place, or that we are known to love well? That we win culture wars with carefully constructed arguments and political power plays, or that we win hearts with humility, truth, and love? God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments. Truth and love can go together. Truth and love must go together.
Peter wrote these words into a climate in which Christians were routinely criticized, marginalized, and persecuted:
“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
Slanderers and persecutors put to shame . . . through gentleness and respect.
I believe that Dan Cathy has been listening to Peter. Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, is a Christian who was thrust into the public eye after answering a reporter’s question about his beliefs regarding gay marriage. Cathy, wanting to be true to his understanding of what Scripture says about the issue, stated simply that he believes marriage is designed for a man and a woman. What followed was an organized and highly publicized protest against him, his commitment to the Bible, and his business, which was boycotted by many.
In response to the boycott, scores of Cathy’s supporters rallied for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” buying millions of chicken sandwiches in a show of solidarity—a protest against the protest.
Dan Cathy did not personally affirm or join in the protest against the protest.
Instead, he quietly reached out to one of his strongest critics, gay activist Shane Windmeyer, who eventually shared these words in an essay that he submitted to the Huffington Post:
“It is not often that people with deeply held and completely opposing viewpoints actually risk sitting down and listening to one another. We see this failure to listen and learn in our government, in our communities and in our own families. Dan Cathy and I would, together, try to do better than each of us had experienced before.
Never once did Dan or anyone from Chick-fil-A ask for Campus Pride to stop protesting Chick-fil-A. On the contrary, Dan listened intently to our concerns and . . . [he] sought first to understand, not to be understood. . . . Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. . . . Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-A—but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”
Deep disagreement and no apologies for what he believes.
Love, respect, listening, and friendship.
At the same time.
A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides
Are you looking for a way forward in which more bridges are built and fewer are burned? Do you want to express your faith in ways that move beyond stereotypes and that are coherent, beautiful, and true? Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things that you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and toward Jesus and your neighbor?
This is our journey.
It’s a journey that Jesus invites us to embark upon.
It’s a journey outside the lines.
(Scroll to bottom for the book’s full Table of Contents)
This is a modified excerpt from the newly revised, expanded edition of Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides. Used by permission from Tyndale House.
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Table of Contents, Jesus Outside the Lines:
Foreword by Gabe Lyons
Introduction: Jesus Outside the Lines
Part One: Jesus Outside the Lines of My Christian Tribe
Chapter One Red State or Blue State?
Chapter Two For the Unborn or for the Poor?
Chapter Three Personal Faith or Institutional Church?
Chapter Four Money Guilt or Money Greed?
Chapter Five Racially the Same or Racially Diverse?
Chapter Six Him or Her??
Part Two: Jesus Outside the Lines of Christianity
Chapter Seven Affirmation or Critique?
Chapter Eight Accountability or Compassion?
Chapter Nine Hypocrite or Work in Progress?
Chapter Ten Chastity or Sexual Freedom?
Chapter Eleven Hope or Realism?
Chapter Twelve Self-Esteem or God-Esteem?
Epilogue Living Outside the Lines
About the Author